In the end, Thursday night always shaped up as an uphill battle for Pine Crest to walk out of Silver Spurs Arena with the Class 4A volleyball title.
Standing in the way was Gainesville’s P.K. Yonge, a rising powerhouse which had dropped only seven sets all year on its quest to take home its first state championship in more than a decade.
The Blue Wave in this case proved to be more than just a team monicker, rolling through the scrappy Panthers on the way to a crowning three-set sweep.
“They really are an amazing team,” outside hitter Ariana Altieri said. “Yeah, I’m upset that we lost, but I’d rather lose to P.K. Yonge than any other team.”
P.K. Yonge dominated from the outset, winning nine of the night’s first 13 points on the way to a 25-16 victory. Then when Pine Crest jumped out to a quick 9-6 lead in the second set, the Blue Wave rode the momentum of a bizarre delay-of-game call to win 16 of the next 21 points.
With Altieri waiting to serve coming out of a timeout, she was whistled for holding the ball for more than the allotted five seconds.
“It was really weird,” Altieri said. “Usually they whistle coming out of the timeout, then he’ll signal serve and whistle again. I didn’t see him do that. I knew the timeout was over and thought he was going to whistle for a serve.
P.K. Yonge jumped on the swing of momentum, winning four of the next six points and later reeling off 10 in a row on the way to a 25-18 win. The Blue Wave completed the sweep 25-15 in the third.
“I think it was just a couple of points here and there, a couple of calls here and there,” Pine Crest coach Albert Sturgeon said. “But at the end of the day, they were able to get more kills than we did in that second game. That’s when we fell behind.”
The Blue Wave (30-2) amassed 41 kills on the night, led by Jac’cara Walker with 13 and four others with at least five. P.K. Yonge also served extremely well, recording eight aces.
“They found our weak spots and just kept serving there over and over again to get us out of [our] system,” Altieri said. “I don’t think it was our best time on serve/receive.”
Caitlin Harvey led Pine Crest (23-8) with nine kills. Altieri added seven, but needed 24 attempts to get there.
“A lot of balls I hit, no other team would pick them up,” Altieri said. “But P.K. Yonge — they got it. They’re an amazing team. They got blocked a few times, got over it and found ways to score.”
It was the third state title for P.K. Yonge, adding this trophy to those won in 2000 and ’02 at the Class 2A level. The Blue Wave’s only losses this year came to Class 7A Winter Springs in August, and to Kentucky power Louisville Mercy at the Berkeley Premier tournament in September.
Since losing the first set to Orlando’s Bishop Moore in a September match, the Blue Wave won 57 of their final 58 sets of the season.
“They play really, really aggressive,” Sturgeon said, noting that the Blue Wave’s core has played together for years at the club level.
“That makes a huge difference in the chemistry part of everything,” he added.
Despite the result, the Panthers left with smiles on their faces for their improbable run, including their improbable five-point, fifth-set run against Ransom Everglades that took them from the brink of elimination to region champions.
It also made sure Sturgeon’s three-year plan stayed right on point.
“I’ve watched this team grow so much over the past four years,” said Lauren Houle, one of just three seniors on the squad. “We all wanted to win, but I’m just so proud of how far we all came. … At the end of the day, we left it all on the court, and that’s what matters.”